Erwin W. Lutzer

B. Childress
Dec 29 2011

There is a story about a frustrated basketball coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons, who hit on an idea to motivate his team.  
Before the game he gave them a speech that centered around the word
pretend.  "Gentlemen, when you go out there
tonight, instead of remembering that we are in last place, pretend we are in first place; instead of being in a losing
streak, pretend we are in a winning streak; instead of this being a regular game, pretend this is a play-off game!"

With that, the team went onto the basketball court and were soundly beaten by the Boston Celtics.  Coach Fitzsimmons
was upset about the loss.  But one of the players slapped him on the back and said, "Cheer up, Coach!  
Pretend we

Many of us appear to be winning in the race of life but perhaps it is all "pretend."  Standing before Christ we will soon
see the difference between an actual victory and wishful thinking.  We will see what it took to win and what it took to
lose.  We'll discover that we were playing for keeps.

Paul loved to use athletic contests as an analogy for living the Christian life.  The famous Greek marathon and the
Isthmian Games in Corinth were a ready illustration of how to run the race that really counts.  We are running the race,
Paul taught, and we are running to win.

    Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that
    you may win.  And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things.  They then do it to
    receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I run in
    such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possible, after I have preached
    to others, I myself should be disqualified (I Corinthians 9:24-27)

Let's not miss Paul's point:  Whatever makes a winning athlete will make a winning Christian.  If we were as committed in
our walk with God as we are to golf or bowling, we will do well in the Christian life.  We can take what we learn in our
tennis lessons and apply it to Christian living.  Think of the energy, time, and money spent on sports.  If we would
transfer such resources to the race that really counts, we would all be winners.

Society does not develop saints.  There is nothing in our culture that will encourage us to have the stamina and
encouragement to become winners for Christ.  Indeed, we shall have to buck the world at every turn of the road, we
shall have to rely on God and His people to help us develop the disciplines that lead to godliness.

Let's introduce the analogy.

In Greece you had to be a citizen in order to compete in the games.  Of course, all citizens were not in the races, but if
you are eligible, you had to give proof of citizenship.  Just so, you have to be a citizen of heaven in order to qualify for
the race that Paul speaks about.

However, there is this difference:
All citizens of heaven are enrolled in this race.  This is not optional; there are no other
events offered during this time frame.  You do not run this race to get to heaven; you run this race in order to receive
the prize.  This race began on the day you accepted Christ as your Savior.

Second, this is one race in which everyone has the potential of winning, for we are not competing with others, but with
ourselves.  We will be judged individually by God.  To be determined is the question of what we did with what God gave
us.  Thus we all have our own personal finish line, our own personal coach, and our own personal final judgment.


Some people don't compete in sports because they fear failure.  The humiliation of coming in last is just too much for
those who are sensitive to public opinion.  But fearful or not, this is one race we run every day.  We are best served by
shirking our fears and running as best we can.  Yes, this is one race you and I can win.

What are those rules that make great athletes and thus make "great" Christians?  Each of us can translate them into
daily living.


When Paul speaks of those who compete in the games he uses the Greek word agōnizomai, from which we get our
agonize.  "Everyone who agonizes in the games..."  You and I are simply unable to grasp the hours of agony that
go into athletic conditioning.  

In August drive past a football field and watch the young athletes sweating under the hot sun.  Clad in heavy clothes,
padding, and a helmet, their faces grimace with distress and even pain.  If they did this because their lives were
threatened we might understand.  What is difficult for some of us to grasp is that they do this voluntarily.  All for a trophy
that will be kept in a glass case and soon be forgotten in this life, and most assuredly not remembered in the next.  They
voluntarily want to play, and they will torture themselves in order to win.

Athletes must give up the bad and the good and strive for only the best.  They must say no to parties and late nights.  
They cannot have the luxury of any personal enjoyment that conflicts with their ability to concentrate and to practice.  
Every distraction must be eschewed.  I'm told that Mike Singletary of the Chicago Bears would work out with his team,
then go home and do more exercises.  Then, late at night when the house was quiet, he would watch videos of
opposing teams to see how he might win against them.

Translate that into the disciplines of living the Christian life.  Imagine the spurt of growth we would enjoy if we were to
memorize Scripture, pray, and study the opposition with the same intensity as athletes attack their game.  Just think of
what would happen if we were to hone our spiritual sensitivities, our spiritual appetites, and our spiritual muscles.  We
could take on the world.

Samson is a good example of someone who didn't discipline his body.  He apparently broke his Nazarite vow when he
touched the dead carcass and ate the honey that was hidden in it.  He played with temptation, and eventually it
ensnared him.  Far from bringing his body into subjection, he followed its desires where they led him.

We've all met people who are gifted and even love God, but they will accomplish only a fraction of what they might do
for God.  The reason is that they are satisfied with too little.  They are in the race, but they don't want to pay the price of

There are many ways to fail in the Christian life.  But all of them begin with lack of discipline, a conscious decision to
take the easy route.  Paul says, "I discipline my body and bring it under control."  The lie is that the body cannot be
disciplined, for indeed it can, especially with the help of the Holy Spirit, who gives us self-control.

I'm not asking you to add to your busy and cluttered life, but rather to substitute the spiritual disciplines in favor of the
priorities you have adopted.  If you had to be on dialysis every day because of kidney malfunction, you would find the
time to do it.  We must approach our walk with God with the same single-minded determination.  Paul says, "This one
thing I do!" not "These forty things I dabble in."

If you struggle with discipline, begin with this:

  •    Spend twenty minutes in prayer and meditation every morning before 9:00.

  •    Read a chapter of a good Christian book each day.

  •    Join a group of believers (Bible study class, prayer group, etc.) for fellowship and accountability.

  •    Learn to share your faith, and take the opportunities that God brings along your path.

Discipline itself does not produce godliness.  We are not made spiritual by being "under the law," depending on our own
strength to win God's approval.  Rather, the purpose of these disciplines is
that we might learn to draw our strength
from Christ


Two different sports help us understand what is needed to win an athletic contest: running and boxing.  "Therefore I run
in such a way, as not beating the air" (I Corinthians 9:26).  Imagine an official firing the gun to start the 100-meter dash
and the runners all heading in different directions!  A sun lover runs toward the west, another fond of mountains runs
toward the east, and a third heads toward the sea.  Each would be expending maximum energy, but none would win the
race.  Only those headed toward the finish line would qualify for the prize.

Or, says Paul, consider a boxer.  If he throws punches that never hit his opponent, he is wasting his energy.  If the
opponent takes not hits, it matters not how fast the swing or how powerful the punch.  Paul would have none of this for
himself; he ran toward the goal, and he boxed so as to make every blow count.

Elsewhere, he returned to the need to keep one's eyes on the goal, to keep one's eyes fastened on Christ.

    Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of
    that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus...I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of
    God in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 3:12-14)

Paul says he strains toward the goal, grasping for what lies ahead.  No wasted energy; no tangents and detours.  He will
win because he keeps the finish line clearly in mind.  In fact, the goal is his consuming passion.

Growing up on a farm, I knew how important it was to plow a straight furrow, especially when beginning a new field.  To
do so, my father would chose an object in the distance and drive the tractor toward it, keeping his eyes on the "goal."  
There is a story, perhaps true, of a farmer who chose his target and drove carefully toward it, but when looking back
discovered that the furrow curved behind him.  The story goes that he had actually fastened his eyes on a cow in the
distance, and as she walked around the pasture he had followed her movements!

The goal you choose will determine how straight a line your life leaves behind.  Many a man has left a crooked furrow
because he chose a temporal target.  "I want to be a millionaire by the time I'm thirty!"  The man who chose that goal
lived to see it fulfilled, but he was also divorced by the age of twenty-six!

Moses left an enduring legacy because he chose an enduring goal.

    By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to
    endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach
    of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward.  (Hebrews 11:24-26)

Looking toward the reward!  He had a clear view that reached well beyond Egypt and the wilderness of Sinai.  He saw
the eternal reward and decided to go for it.  Choosing this course was more difficult than herding sheep in the desert,
but it was worth it.  He did not confuse the invisible with the imaginary; he knew that heaven was more real than earth
could ever be.  He could see more than his contemporaries.

Our best example, however, is Christ Himself.  "Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the
joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God"
(Hebrews 12:2).  He too saw beyond this life into the next.  He was motivated by the prize of sitting at the right hand of
God the Father.  Focus is everything.  Every one of us should be able to state our goals, our most fervent ambitions.  
We must strive toward that which will endure.

While bobbing in a boat in Lake Michigan, I became nauseated until my friend encouraged me to choose a building on
the shore and keep my eyes fixed on it.  I chose the Sears Tower and discovered in a few moments that I felt better.  He
explained that the motion of a boat confuses our balance system if we look at the very object that is causing our
movement.  But we can handle the ups and downs if our eyes have a fixed object that is unmoved by our own

We all have our days when we must say, "Today I will remember the goals; I will focus on Christ no matter what storm
might come my way!"


We've already referred to the passage in the book of Hebrews that tells us how to run the race.  There we are given the
rule book on how to run successfully.  "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us
also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race
that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1).

You've heard Bible teachers say that this "cloud of witnesses" is a reference to those who have gone to heaven and are
now watching us here on earth.  But, in context, it is clear that the witnesses are the heroes of Hebrews 11, and
we are
motivated, not because they see us, but because we see them

Specifically, we look back to men like Abraham, Joseph, and Moses and conclude that if they could run the race
successfully, so can we.  We learn from them that endurance is always possible if we remember where we are headed.  
We are to glance at these heroes and gaze on Jesus.

What are the rules of the race?

First, we must
keep our weight down.  We are to "lay aside every weight."  Some people have to join a spiritual Weight
Watchers group.  There are some things that might not be sins, but weights, those habits and actions that take time and
energy from that which is better.

Second, we are to
keep our feet free.  We must be free from the sin that does so easily "entangle" us.  Sin tangles our
feet, makes us stumble, and eventually will cause us to lose the race.  Just think of the many people who began with a
small weight or sin and ended up wounded on the sideline of the racetrack.  Those of us who are still in the race have
an obligation to help those who have stumbled so that they too can cross the finish line.

In the 1992 Olympics, Derek Redmond of Great Britain popped his hamstring in the 400-meter semifinal heat.  He
limped and hobbled around half the Olympic Stadium track.  The sight of his son's distress was too much for Jim
Redmond, who had been sitting near the top row of the stadium packed with 65,000 people.  He rushed down flights of
stairs and blew past security people, who challenged his lack of credentials to be on the track.

"I wasn't interested in what they were saying," he said of the security guards.  He caught up to his son on the top of the
final curve, some 120 meters from the finish.  He put one arm around Derek's waist, another his left wrist.  Then they did
a three-legged hobble toward the finish line.

Derek had no chance of winning a medal, but his determination earned him the respect of the crowd.  His father said,
"He worked eight years for this.  I wasn't going to let him not finish."  Whether or not his father knew it, he was acting

"Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so
that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed" (Hebrews 12:12-13).   Some people have to
be helped across the finish line.  Some have stumbled over their own feet; others have been tripped by family members
and so-called friends.  We must help those who have fallen into the snares of the devil; we must lift up the fallen, bind
up their wounds, and help them on their journey toward home.

Determination will do it.


Every runner knows the danger of distractions and potholes.  We not only have to know how to win, but we must also
know why many people have lost the race.

Please remember that chapter divisions in the Bible are not inspired!  Paul does not conclude his thoughts about
winning in the race at the end of I Corinthians 9, but continues his thought into the next chapter: "For I do not want you
to be unaware, brethren" (10:1).  That little word
for is a bridge that continues Paul's warning.

In chapter 9 Paul says, "I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself
should be disqualified" (verse 27).  He feared that even he might lose the race!

When he begins chapter 10 he uses the Israelites in the desert as an illustration of those who lost the race.  These
were people redeemed out of Egypt; they had crossed the Red Sea and had experienced the daily provision of God,
and yet they fell short of the prize.

First, Paul speaks of the blessings they enjoyed.  They were given all they needed to run successfully.

    For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through
    the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all
    drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was
    Christ. (verses 1-4)

Next, Paul describes their failure in the face of innumerable blessings.  "Nevertheless, with most of them God was not
well-pleased" (verse 5).  Then follows a list of their sins: idolatry, immorality, and ingratitude.  Many of these people
were saved in the Old Testament sense of that word: They will be in heaven.  Nevertheless, they were displeasing to
God and will not win the prize.

The contrast is between their many undeserved blessings and their failures.  They began the race with all the resources
for the journey, yet they stumbled badly, far from the finish line.  Not only did they not make it into Canaan, they never
even lived successfully in the desert, where God supplied all of their needs.

The same sins beset us today.  Our only hope of winning is to repent; indeed our lives should be lived with an attitude
of repentance.  Ask the Holy Spirit to show you the sins that might keep you from finishing well.  If Paul feared that he
might be disqualified, you and I are most assuredly vulnerable.

"Say it ain't so, Ben."

That was how the venerable Canadian Broadcasting Corporation led its national radio news on Monday, September 27,
1988.  Their national hero, Ben Johnson, had just tested positive for anabolic steroids and was stripped of the gold
medal he had just won for breaking the record in the Olympic 100-meter race.   Even as members of the Canadian
Parliament were in the middle of flowery tributes to the "fastest man in the world," reports began to trickle in that
Johnson had been disqualified.  What made the embarrassment more acute was the fact that Johnson had just been
extolled as a model "Say No to Drugs" athlete for Canadian youth.

Johnson learned that you can't win without obeying the rules.  No matter how wonderfully we start, it is crossing the
finish line well that counts.

We look back and say, "Abraham won; David won; Joseph won; so did a host of people who did not see deliverance but
trusted God anyway."  We can do the same!  But let us always remember what it cost them.

Nothing fades as quickly as flowers.  In the hot sunlight they last but a few hours.  It was for such a wreath that the
athletes competed in ancient Greece.  Paul called it a "corruptible crown."

In contrast, there is an incorruptible crown given to those who serve Christ.  It is guaranteed to last forever.  We must
covet the "prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."  Paul was not embarrassed to say that he desired to win the
crown; he did not think it unspiritual to seek for the approval of Christ and the honor associated with it.

On a businessman's desk was this sign:

    In 20 years what will you wish you had done today?  Do it now!

Do you want to win the race?  Whatever it takes, just "Do it now!"


YOUR ETERNAL REWARD, by Erwin W. Lutzer, Copyright 1998, Moody Publishers.